Chris Paddack's changeup has made him the best rookie pitcher of the season and it starred again in an old-school pitchers' duel against Jacob deGrom and the Mets.
To watch San Diego’s Chris Paddack throw his changeup is to watch a hitter realize that his world is made of lies. Of course, this is the measure of any good changeup; it is wholly different from the straightforward humiliation of being overpowered by a fastball or the understandable failure to grasp the geometry of a curveball. Instead, it is something much more bleak, more personal, more insidious: you believed you knew what you were seeing, you thought you could trust yourself, and, oh, look how wrong you were. When Paddack’s changeup is working, it plays this trick just as well as any pitch could. Sure, in a vacuum, it looks pretty—but in context, it is killer. Thrown next to his fastball, it is virtually indistinguishable, same arm action and same initial movement and same everything. For a hitter, it is a pesky trivia question—this is a twin, yes, but identical or fraternal?—until he realizes, too late, that this is someone else altogether, and it just might kill him.
Paddack’s changeup is certainly not the only feature that has made him the best rookie pitcher of the season; it is perhaps not even the most important one. (His fastball, apart from being his primary pitch, has produced an even lower batting average from opponents.) It is the most dazzling, however, and it’s contributed to a positively gaudy stat line so far. With a 1.55 ERA in his first seven starts, Paddack has stood out not just among rookies in the National League, but among pitchers, period. Of course, it’s still too early in the season to use “on pace for” trivia in any meaningful sense, but it’s never too early to indulge in it for fun. So, then, just for fun—it has been more than a century since a rookie starter finished with a sub-2.00 ERA. (Scott Perry’s 1.98 in 1918.) In the last half-century, only five have finished with a sub-2.50 ERA (José Fernández, Dave Righetti, Fernando Valenzuela, Mark Fidrych, Jon Matlack; easy Rookies of the Year, all five.) Paddack—with 10.2 K/9, 0.69 WHIP, and, yes, that changeup—looks like he just might have the stuff to join them.
The 23-year-old’s Monday start was his best yet, an old-school pitchers’ duel against Jacob deGrom. And Paddack won—definitively, if not quite easily.
Statistically, it was his best game so far: 7.2 shutout innings with 11 strikeouts, allowing just four hits and one walk. Paddack got the win, as the Padres topped the Mets, 4-0. But, more than that, it was his best game aesthetically, too. There was the first time he struck out his fellow rookie phenom, New York first baseman Pete Alonso—a sequence of high fastballs, two of them called for strikes, one of them swung on and missed. There was the second time he struck out Alonso (again, those high fastballs, among the hardest he’s ever thrown, this time broken up by a single curveball), ending the third inning, punctuated by the visceral emotion of a clear “let’s go” as Paddack strode back to the dugout.
And, best of all, there was his tenth strikeout, breaking his previous personal record of nine. With Wilson Ramos at the plate to begin the seventh inning, he threw three changeups, followed by three fastballs, to end up at a full count. For his putaway pitch, Paddack returned to the changeup. It worked. Ramos swung, only to see his bat go spinning back toward the dugout as the ball nestled into the catcher’s glove.
There is, perhaps, no better representation of the power of the changeup. For a hitter, there is some level of faith in himself, his bat, his swing—a sense of where he is, to borrow another line from another sport. And then it’s gone; the whole thing has been built on his own broken perception, and his bat is gone, his read was all wrong, he has struck out. Only Paddack remains, circling the mound, sense of self unwavering, as he gears up to go again. It’s a good trick. And, so far, baseball has been falling for it.